Saturday, April 15, 2023

Small Gods by Terry Pratchett

 I’ll start with the book is a damn delight! I’d read two Discworld novels in the past, The Color of Magic back in the late 90s and Guards! Guards!, both of which I enjoyed immensely at the time of reading. I’ve also read his collaborative novel with Neil Gaiman, Good Omens, several times. The first time I read it, I was just in an early stage of losing my faith, so while I enjoyed it and laughed a good bit, I don’t think I was quite ready for it ideologically. I read it again three years later in 2009. When I read it again in 2019 and again in 2020 before the TV adaptation was released, I was more open to what it was doing. It’s great. But Small Gods covers similar territory as that book and does it better I think.

It’s as much a statement of a sort of humanist philosophy of religion as it is a novel. A satire of a certain fundamentalist mindsetl. That it does that while coming across more as a comic novel than an exercise in didacticism is impressive. He understood that it has to be a good novel first, and if it’s a comic novel it had to be funny first or second rather than putting a narrative veneer on a tract. He even has a major character called Dydactylos, which was perfect.

And the novel is great. I’ve liked/admired Pratchett and thought he was hilarious ever since I first read one of his books. But this is the one that made me a fan, I think. I picked up a stack of used copies of his stuff at Mr. K’s last year, and I am now looking forward to the rest.

Brutha, a novice in the service of The Great God Om, is a dull but kind man. He’s also the last person in the whole hierarchy of the religion who actually still believes in Om, who has fallen on hard times as belief in him dwindled away almost completely. Gaiman does a great riff on the premise of Gods needing worship to survive in his excellent American Gods, but, pending rereads, I like this one more. Om is an aging nearly powerless tortoise with one missing eye.

Brutha’s religious order is ruled by a fundamentalist Inquisitor type (an Exquisitor) who intends to be the Eighth Prophet of Om. He’s a cruel sociopath out for power. He catches wind of Brutha’s incredible memory and chooses him for a spying mission/invasion of a nearby nation. We know from the start of the book that Brutha is the actual chosen prophet and his development across the book as he becomes more and more aware of what’s actually happening around him is incredibly done. The book is very well structured, both as a study of his and other characters and as a tightly written narrative.

But of course, the real star of the show is Pratchett’s prose which is hilarious and light, but carries a lot of heft nonetheless. It’s impressive how he can sum up characters in a few strokes. Or show the absurdity of a point of view without being meanspirited about it.  And as hilarious or insightful as the prose is, it’s all in service of the whole. Just masterful.

Really looking forward to more of his work now.

Canon Worthy

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